Fighting the forces that would drag Pennsylvania alcohol policy into the 20th century, the state Liquor Control Board has boasted of its unmatched ability to provide decent jobs while guarding against the reckless enjoyment of demon rum.
Now it's in the uncomfortable position of advocating a course at direct odds with both those supposed social achievements: vodka in vending machines.
The LCB's otherworldly wine kiosks - elaborate, expensive, Breathalyzer-equipped devices designed to facilitate the purchase of wine in supermarkets and Walmarts - have enjoyed little success since they debuted last year, only to break down right before Christmas.
While the agency figures the machines must sell about 50 bottles a day to break even, some are seeing daily sales in the single digits. That's right: Humans have enjoyed wine for millennia, but the LCB has figured out how to stop them.
Rather than pull the plug on its wine-droids, though, the agency is ordering another round. Sometime soon, it expects to try offering hard liquor alongside wine in select machines.
Officials guess that will give consumers more of the convenience they crave and possibly stem mounting losses from the kiosk experiment. Perhaps more Pennsylvanians would brave these Rube Goldberg contraptions if they were dispensing Jim Beam.
But the idea has already drawn just criticism from both sides of the aisle in Harrisburg. It struck State Sen. Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny) as "inappropriate." And State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks) told The Inquirer he's dismayed that, "The state is saying, 'Drink more!' "
Such criticism is a strange development for an agency whose founding mission was to limit access to alcohol. In fact, depending on the audience and the time of day, the LCB and its allies continue to argue that control is among the system's selling points.
So how did the agency end up trying to make alcohol seem as accessible as a candy bar, failing to do so, and bragging about both? Blame the paradox inherent in an entity charged with controlling alcohol and purveying it at the same time, leaving it firmly grounded in the 1930s but forever promising "modernization." Today the LCB has no real reason to exist, only ad hoc excuses designed to protect itself and the very few other interests it suits.
Both Gov. Corbett and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) have expressed support for joining most of the rest of America by privatizing liquor sales, prompting the recent flurry of strange news out of the beleaguered booze ministry.